Kari Lake Wants Arizona Sheriffs To Enforce Abortion Ban

Red background with Arizona 1864 abortion ban in the middle of the graphic surrounded by Kari Lake on the right and Arizona Sheriffs Joe Arpaio and Mark Lamb on the left.

On April 9, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a 1864 law criminalizing any and all abortion care, a zombie law that few remembered existed until 2022 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, returning the issue of abortion legalization to the states. Never mind that the law was passed before Arizona was even a state, at a time when women, Latinos and Black people could not vote. Never mind that the author of the law was described as a “pursuer of nubile young females.” Back to 1864 it would be.

Hardly a week later, Kari Lake, the likely GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Kyrsten Sinema, spoke to the Mohave County Republican Party. After complaining that the Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes (D) had vowed not to enforce the 1864 law, Lake added, “The only people who can enforce that law are our sheriffs. And we need to start asking the sheriffs if they’re willing to enforce that. I don’t think they are.”

Lake, who has continued to falsely claim the existence of rampant election fraud, has made wavering on abortion her calling card. In 2022, when she ran for governor (a race she is still contesting in court), she called the complete abortion ban a “great law” and said abortion was a sin. 

Now, as a candidate for Senate, she has moderated her stance, arguing against a federal ban and calling the 1864 law “out of step with Arizonans.” (Her indecision on the issue is even starting to annoy some Republicans.) This latest statement suggests that she is perfectly willing to assent to an outright abortion ban — even willing to call the sheriffs.

Under the 1864 law, women seeking abortion care as well as doctors who perform abortions face fines and prison time. The criminalization of abortion care requires the cooperation of law enforcement and prosecutors. For this reason, prosecutors across the country have said they would not enforce the criminalization of abortion care, including many in Arizona. 

Mayes had already promised not to prosecute doctors who perform abortions, and she said she would not allow Arizona’s county prosecutors — who, like sheriffs, are elected in each county — to enforce the 1864 law either. Among sitting sheriffs in the state, Maricopa County Sheriff Russ Skinner is the only one who has said he would not arrest women or physicians for abortion care.

Even though Arizona Democrats — and two Republican legislators — succeeded in overturning the 1864 law, there is still cause for concern.

Lake summoned the specter of sheriffs intentionally as a way to rally the troops. Perhaps she was thinking of the Arizona sheriff who investigated two Latina women based on a video taken surreptitiously by two known voter vigilantes with personal grudges. Or maybe the sheriff who prevented women from obtaining abortions in his care. Or the sheriff who ran on an pro-forced-birth platform, describing abortion as murder and casting aside concerns about women’s health. (Now that he is running in the GOP primary against Lake, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb has softened the language on his website to refer to the “sanctity of life,” and imitated Donald Trump by saying the issue should be left to the states.)

Should pregnant people seek to openly carry a firearm, sheriffs would clamor to protect their rights. Instead, far-right sheriffs and members of the constitutional sheriff movement across the country have not extended any of the liberties they claim to cherish to many groups, including pregnant people. Liberty — freedom from government regulation — is their calling card, and yet so many people are excluded. 

This is of particular concern in Arizona where there are already a number of far-right sheriffs serving office, law enforcement officers who believe that their discretionary powers place them above all other officials, even the president.

But it’s not just Arizona. In many counties across the country, sheriffs have been eager to do the bidding of the GOP, especially when it comes to enforcing (or not enforcing) controversial laws that are particularly discriminatory, unpopular, and contrary to a free and fair democracy. Since sheriffs are politicians, they are more likely to cave to pressure from disgruntled far-right vigilantes who can insist upon spurious investigations. 

In addition, sheriffs across the country have been linked to Christian nationalist figures, who have long argued vehemently against women’s access to abortion and reproductive care. In 2023, the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) hosted Matt Trewhella, who founded “Missionaries for the Preborn,” a militant anti-abortion group, and believes that sheriffs should not enforce laws without a Biblical basis. (The NSA has not clarified their stance on Trewhella’s teachings.)

Even though Arizona Democrats — and two Republican legislators — succeeded in overturning the 1864 law, there is still cause for concern. Beyond the fears that sheriffs will arrest physicians for performing abortions, the current legal landscape means that more people may be driving out-of-state to obtain abortions — Lake suggested as much herself when she advised that Arizona’s abortion ban was not a catastrophe because people could travel to California. Such travelers are subject to surveillance through automated-license-plate readers, and there are currently no laws to prevent law enforcement from sharing this information across state lines. One California sheriff has already done so.

Simply opposing a federal ban will not be enough to prevent local law enforcement — especially sheriffs — from pursuing cases against women, doctors and others who assist with providing abortion care. In addition to supporting democratic efforts to keep abortion legal, we need to fight against the rise of far-right sheriffs who are ideologically motivated to limit freedom and liberty to all but the white men who mirror the sheriffs themselves.

Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.